As Virat Kohli and Co demolish oppositions across the field, in the background there is a revolution brewing where fitness is king.
India’s current fitness and conditioning coach Shanker Basu can be credited for much of this change. It was reportedly with Basu’s guidance that Kohli brought about a change in his lifestyle while working together at Royal Challengers Bangalore.
After joining the Indian team in June 2015, Basu had stepped aside in December last year. However, when new head coach Ravi Shastri came into the fold in June, so did Basu.
Kohli, Basu and Shastri have put top priority on fitness and fielding with sights set squarely on the 2019 World Cup. Under this leadership group, for the first time, the ‘Yo-Yo’ fitness test has become mandatory for selection into the senior Indian team.
Yo-Yo is an endurance training exercise that involves velocity bursts, beep methods and a maximal running aerobatic fitness test.
Introduced by Basu for the current crop, the test has already led to the exclusion of stalwarts such as Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina from the Indian senior team fold.
Basu, a former sprinter who represented India at the Asian Junior Championship in Tokyo in 1987, has blooded many youngsters while at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru. His methods, while accepted at the top, are however causing much angst in the lower echelons of the Indian cricket set up.
“Basu is a good friend of mine, but he is an athlete and trying to build a cricket team with methods that are used to mold sprinters,” said Suhas Pawar, former head of fitness and conditioning at the Baroda and Vidarbha cricket associations.
“Making fitness a key aspect is a great move but to make tests like Yo-Yo mandatory for selection is not an ideal in a sport like cricket which is predominantly skill-based,” added Pawar.
However, despite these reservations, the Yo-Yo test has cropped into the cricketing lexicon and seems to be here to stay. With the senior team all for it, the younger aspiring lot are sure to make a beeline towards methods that lead to a better fitness-oriented lifestyle.
‘Yo-Yo not the father of all fitness tests’
Where the contention lies is whether the test should be made mandatory for selection. With the Indian team moving in this direction, the focus has now shifted to how the feeder teams in the domestic structure will react.
According to Amogh Pandit, head of strength and conditioning at the Mumbai Cricket Association, the dilemma lies in the overnight importance that has been given to the Yo-Yo test.
“The Yo-Yo test is not the father of all fitness tests,” said Pandit, who has been associated with the state body for over a decade. “It is a test that has been part of training processes for most teams over the past few years. It tests the player’s endurance, but cricket is not just about endurance. There are a varied number of skills that make for a good cricketer.
“Other than a player’s pure cricketing sense there are other motor skills such as speed and agility that also constitute a major part of what make a good cricketer. These aspects are not covered in a Yo-Yo test,” adds Pandit.
Till now, practice among domestic teams has been to present selectors with data collated from various tests conducted across age-groups.
“Across state teams, the practice is common,” said Pandit. “Results of each player from various speed tests, Yo-Yo are all sent to the selectors and coaches of the various teams. It is then their prerogative to assign importance to the numbers.”
Fitness culture still nascent among domestic teams
For most Ranji coaches, though, such issues are not paramount, at least at the moment.
According to KP Bhaskar, head coach of the Delhi Ranji team, so far these test results remain a way to help players maintain fitness levels and nothing else.
“All such matters are taken care of by our fitness head,” said Bhaskar. “For us and most other domestic sides, imposing such stringent fitness criteria, for now, would be pre-mature. The national team currently has a good pool of players, who are all at the top of their game. Domestic teams do not have such luxuries.”
Internationally, cricket has never been about toned bodies and six-packs. The likes of Arjuna Ranatunga and Inzamam-Ul-Haq have become icons not due to their level of fitness, but because of their performances on the field.
Spin great Shane Warne was never a fan of these methods. His spat with former Australia coach John Buchanan is a part of folklore. The latter’s insistence on data analysis and fitness did not sit well with Warne, who never got his head around the policy.
In India’s domestic circuit, it is the senior players who guide the youngsters. Experts believe insistence on policies that make fitness a benchmark would endanger this culture that has helped the national team form an enviable bench strength.
“Most teams depend a lot on senior players,”said Bhaskar. “Making these players jump through hoops for a test would be difficult. The culture as of now in domestic cricket has not evolved to the extent where fitness is the ultimate differentiating factor.”
Indian cricket’s tryst with fitness first began when former New Zealand cricketer John Wright took charge as head coach in 2000. Over the years, the process has only become more streamlined. Gary Kirsten would sometimes conduct two Yo-Yo training rounds during a session.
According to Pawar, attitudes have changed, but forsaking focus on skills for want of fitness could prove disastrous.
“The Indian team was a star-studded one just a few years ago,” he said. “Each player had a mountain of runs under their belt. Would you have asked them to pass a test? They would have made the fitness coaches only run around.”
The emphasis of the Indian team on fitness, however, has Pawar worried. “I once had a chance to speak with former coach Greg Chappell,” he said. “His grouse with the Indian team was the tapering intensity among the players as a day in a Test match progressed.”
Players were at their best in the morning, after lunch they would start tapering off, before handing over the advantage to the opposition post tea, Chappell had lamented then.
“Despite having stalwarts in his ranks, he put too much importance on fitness,” Pawar added. “As we know, the results did not play out according to plan.”